Opinion Columns & Blogs

With budget cuts, courts may struggle to retain order in society

When money is tight, as it is now, people seem to fight more. The stress of the unknown does not always bring out the best in people, especially when you are talking about money.

So, let’s talk about money — or the lack of it — for the trial courts.

The latest budgets proposed in the Legislature will cut the trial courts significantly. Cases will be delayed and court users may feel rushed on overtaxed dockets. The cuts contemplated by legislators will damage our trial courts statewide and will put a greater burden on the counties to pick up the difference.

Why should you care?

Times are tough for everyone, right? Stop a moment and think about the faces of the people the trial courts serve.

It’s the battered woman or man who needs a protection order to keep him or her and the children safe from abuse. It’s the mom or dad whose child is out of control and no one will help. It’s the small business owner who needs a contract dispute decided to stay in business. It’s the runaway teen who thinks the streets are safe. It’s the child who won’t go to school. It’s the victim of a crime looking for justice. Or, it’s the parent in a divorce who desperately needs money to put food on the table for the family and the other spouse won’t pay.

These are some of the people who will suffer from cuts to the trial courts.

The judicial branch is one of the three branches of government. Yet, we must rely on the Legislature and cash-strapped local governments to fund the trial courts.

Washington is dead last — 50th out of 50 states — in terms of funding the state provides to the trial courts. Counties and cities shoulder virtually the whole burden. State funding to the entire judicial branch in Washington is less than 1 percent of the state budget.

State funding for trial courts has already been cut 19.3 percent in 2009. More cuts are proposed this year.

The cuts already taken to the trial courts’ bare-bones budgets include things required by the constitution or by statute. State funding for interpreters has been cut by 34 percent, leaving some people facing the real prospect of not understanding what is happening in court when proceedings are in a different language from their own.

Volunteers serving as required guardians ad litem save government millions of dollars. Yet, funding to supervise these volunteers appointed to watch out for the best interests of children in the child welfare system was cut by more than 20 percent this biennium.

Youth crime is down, due in large part to the research-based programs in juvenile court, but funding for probation officers and these evidence-based programs was cut.

Tough economic times do not create a recession in case filings. Courts must handle all of the criminal, civil, domestic and juvenile cases that are filed.

Ordinary people rely on the court system to help them in their most difficult times. This is why you should care, because it means that the courts that bring order to our society may no longer be able to keep that promise.

Justice is the business of government.

Government has a fundamental responsibility to provide a functioning court system to the people — without one, our democracy is at risk. Like police and fire services, we all need an accessible court system — even if we never have to use it ourselves.

Tell your legislators that they need to adequately fund the judicial branch of government and if they can, restore money cut from the courts.

Stephen M. Warning, a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge, is president of the Superior Court Judges Association of Washington state.